The 3rd Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2008:

Looking back on the year in film that was 2008, I’m left with but one question for Hollywood: “Why So Serious?”

I wish I could say it was the best of times, but mostly it was the worst of times.  Still even in the worst of times, there are plenty of alcoves to hide treasures.  As the world financial markets crumbled, a great depression engulfed the multiplexes from the darkest of comedies (all those alcoves In Bruges) to the darkest of popcorn flicks (The Dark Knight) to the saddest, coldest of Decembers.  2008 produced not only some of the worst films I have ever seen (Be Kind Rewind, The Day the Earth Stood Still), but also some of the most depressing (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Revolutionary Road).

Overall 2008 was a stifling and mediocre year for films. Continue reading

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A Review of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Cate asks Brad, Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?

Cate asks Brad, “Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?”

Nothing Lasts Forever, 28 December 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

On a cold night on the eve of WWII in Russia, a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton) shares tea with a most peculiar tugboat man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). When she asks him where is he from, Benjamin replies, “New Orleans…Louisiana.” Swinton’s character replies, “I didn’t think there was any other.”

This moment comes about forty minutes into the film which has been established on the grounds of a woman (Julia Ormond) reading to her dying mother (Cate Blanchett) from the diary of Benjamin Button as Hurricane Katrina sweeps over New Orleans. The ghost of a New Orleans now lost haunts David Fincher’s lyrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages backwards. There’s no denying this film couldn’t have been made five years ago, not only because the technology wasn’t there to make the process of aging backwards look real, but it would’ve also been a completely different movie as screenwriter Eric Roth wouldn’t have been able to bookend the film with Blanchett on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina comes to literally wipe away her life. The story is hung on a gimmick, and the film told as a fable, but there’s grounding in the reality of life’s greater mysteries that speaks volumes about not just the death of a man or a woman, but the death of a city and the death of a way of life.

A big part of making the audience believe in the story falls on the film’s technical aspects: the make-up, the CGI, the period-piece details of the film’s set designs and costumes. If you look close enough, you can find things to nitpick, like the distracting disembodied voice of Cate Blanchett distorted onto a little girl, but for the most part Fincher constructs it all seamlessly. In terms of scope and sentiment, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems a complete departure for a director usually obsessed with darker more violent tales, but Fincher has always liked his plots to begin (think Seven or Panic Room) or end (think The Game or Fight Club) with a gimmick, and he’s always been a filmmaker obsessed with cutting-edge technology (think of the VIPER camera used to film Zodiac). Fincher does a superb job with his meticulous construction of these elements (complimented nicely by Alexandre Desplat’s subdued score), and he really wins the audience over with his flashbacks within flashbacks that are done in a charmingly stylized manner that remind us we’re watching a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed above any other pretense.

By shifting the central location of the story from the original setting of Baltimore to New Orleans, Roth opens the film up to a new layer of interpretation. Though the episodic tale of Pitt’s Benjamin growing younger while Blanchett’s Daisy grows older spans the globe from Manhattan to Russia to Paris, the characters’ hearts remain united in New Orleans. Roth, who also penned the thematically similar Forrest Gump peppers his screenplay with many momentous events from the 20th Century, but those moments ebb and flow through Benjamin’s life just as the other characters do showing us that life is made only of moments. None of them last forever.

The supporting players (including a gutsy performance from Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adoptive mother who runs a nursing home) are wonderful and allow Pitt and Blanchett to shine as the movie stars that they are. Sure, these two have probably given better performances elsewhere, but here they have been given roles for which they might be best remembered long after their star-power has dimmed.

In a year when the films with the most impact (like The Dark Knight) have been those that have tapped into the fears and mindset of the times we live in, it’s rather fitting that a movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes along at the end of the year. It should be one of those movies that hold audiences rapt in hushed silence, but it’s also the type of movie that usually receives instant backlash. I wonder how it will stand up over time. On the surface it attempts to tell a timeless tale, but in a bittersweet way proves the opposite. Movies stars like Pitt and Blanchett, movies like this, stories, fables, dreams, cities like New Orleans…none of these things are timeless. Timelessness is just a flight of the imagination…like the idea of a man aging backwards.

But what a wonderful flight it is.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

Talking Patrons Push Philly Filmgoer’s Button

CAPTION:  Columbus Blvd, here’s your fifteen minutes!

So as I’m reading up on reviews of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in preparation for a Sunday outing to go see the film, I came across the most curious piece of local news in a long while.

Apparently an angry filmgoer shot a man in the arm during a showing of the film at the United Artists Theater at Riverview Plaza on Columbus Blvd. in Philadelphia.  The shooter had earlier asked the man to quiet his talking son, and the boisterous family continued to make noise despite the request.  After most other patrons fled, the shooter remained in the now silent theater watching the film until the police arrived.  I guess that means the movie is really good!

While yet another shooting in my beloved Philly is nothing to write home about, the most curious piece of this case is the reaction from the public. 

The outcry has been clear:  BE QUIET IN THE MOVIE THEATER!

The American public is fed up with people who won’t shut up at the movies.

Also, wake up parents!  Don’t take your kids to movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where they will be bored to death and act out.  There were plenty of other options for this family at Christmastime, so show some common sense, folks.

Of course I don’t condone shooting people–unless they were the Hollywood producers responsible for The Day the Earth Stood Still–but can we really blame the guy?  Perhaps they showed a preview of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino in front of the film, and that gave the shooter the idea to be the ultimate bad-ass.

Meanwhile, I’ll be seeing the film in Jersey at a curious theater where people know how to be quiet, and no one will be carrying a gun.

Check out the local spin from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Mongolian Trailer Park

CAPTION:  Ghengis Khan is all up in this yurt.

So last week I saw that flick Mongol, you know, the new epic about Ghengis Khan made by a Russian director (Sergei Bodrov), starring a Japanese dude (Tadonubo Asano), nominated for an Oscar, and inexplicably released stateside in the middle of the summer movie season.  It was a pretty good movie that held my interest for two hours by exposing me to a culture I know little about and featuring a well played out historical epic story arc complete with requisite kick-ass battle scenes.  Sitting there getting frosty in the air-conditioned theater while the heat and humidity raged outside, I couldn’t help thinking this was a movie better suited for the prestigious autumnal season.  With the most gluttonous of film seasons in full swing (is The Dark Knight out yet?), I decided to take a look ahead at my favorite season in film and weather. 

Here I present my list of most anticipated movies for Fall 2008:

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1.  The Miracle at St. Anna  (scheduled release date:  9/26)

The Director:  Spike Lee

The Stars:  Derek Luke, John Leguizamo, James Gandolfini, Joseph Gordon Levitt, some cute Italian kid, Alexandra Maria Lara, and a boatload of other people and familiar faces

The Scoop:  Okay, so I will admit it right here, right now.  I love Spike Lee.  I even liked She Hate Me.  He’s a cunning provocateur who’s had numerous peaks and valleys in his career but just won’t stop no matter what and always seems to get his name in the papers–witness Clint Eastwood telling him recently to “shut his face”.  Spike is coming off the most commercially successful film of his long career with Inside Man.  With this adaptation of the novel by James McBride about a group of African-American soldiers trapped in Tuscany during WWII, he’s giving us his first epic since Malcom X.    The trailer for this film is a smashing success that manages to sell the film as both a murder mystery and a searing Saving Private Ryan style WWII drama.  This latest Spike Lee Joint has so many great things going for it:  an auteur on the precipice of a personal artistic and commercial Renaissance (much like the one Scorsese recently went through with The Aviator and The Departed); a great storyline that has the potential to provoke discussions of history, race, religion and politics in a historic Presidential election year; and a multi-ethnic cast that includes a cute Italian kid, and as a special bonus for me, the devastatingly seductive Alexandra Maria Lara, whose beauty alone made Francis Ford Coppola’s recent debacle Youth Without Youth worth watching.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3941007641/

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2.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  (scheduled release date:  12/19)

The Director:  David Fincher

The Stars:  Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond

The Scoop:  This is the fantastic case of a gimmick film (it tells the not so simple story of a man who ages backwards, folks) with a literary pedigree (adapted from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald).  I first saw the trailer for this in front of the latest Indiana Jones flick, and the packed house was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.  Its epic scope appears to be a complete departure for director Fincher, and its unique story and images sweep over you in the masterfully crafted trailer-much kudos thus far to the marketing team.  This film has the potential to be monumentally huge or just another curiosity grabbing for Oscar gold at Christmastime.  Will Fincher (robbed of an Oscar nod for Zodiac last year) and uber-star Pitt (robbed last year for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) finally get their due?

CAPTION:  Two Oscars please, my good man!  Oscars for me and the Finch!

Watch the trailer:  http://www.apple.com/trailers/paramount/thecuriouscaseofbenjaminbutton/

Official Site:  http://www.benjaminbutton.com/

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3.  Australia  (scheduled release date:  11/14)

The Director:  Baz Luhrmann

The Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Australia!

The Scoop:  Baz the Spazz changes gears completely with this big historical epic depicting heroism and romance against the backdrop of a Japanese attack on Australia during WWII.  The trailer sells the imagery and scope of the film very well, making it look Gone with the Wind Down Under, though the frame story of Kidman telling a fairy tale to the Aborigine girl seems a bit strained (and remarkably similar to Tarsem’s The Fall.)  Luhrmann appears to have abandoned his hyper kinetic style for the dreadful sumptuousness that always seems to sell tickets during the big holidays at the end of the year.  Kidman and Jackman certainly look the parts, and lord knows they could both use a big hit.   Will critics be eager to embrace the new Luhrmann after a seven year hiatus?  More than any other film, I think critics have the chance to make or break this one.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2917663001/

Official Site:  http://www.australiamovie.com/

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4.  The Soloist  (scheduled release date:  11/21)

The Director:  Joe Wright

The Stars:  Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Jamie Foxx

The Scoop:  Brit Joe Wright atones for his period pieces by making this American set musical biopic.  Downey Jr. is back on the A-list, the director is taking on a genre held in high favor in recent years, and playing a schizophrenic musical genius seems right up Foxx’s alley.  There are no trailers or official sites yet, but I can’t wait to see what kind of tracking long shots Wright cooks up for this one–I’m picturing a shot the begins with an overhead dolly and travels down and through the crowd and orchestra at a grand concert hall.

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5.  Revolutionary Road  (scheduled release date:  12/26)

The Director:  Sam Mendes

The Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

The Scoop:  I have to admit, the plot of this one (from a novel by Richard Yates) sounds like a snore-fest:  a young couple in 1950’s Connecticut deal with problems and such.  However, Mendes has yet to make a bad film, suburban dystopia is his bread and butter (American Beauty, anyone?), and the reunion of Titanic stars Leo and Kate in a Christmastime release give this film some palpable buzz.  No trailers or official site have appeared yet. 

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Other Films of Interest:

Changeling:  10/31.  The latest from Clint Eastwood has some mixed buzz coming from its Cannes’ premier.  This 1920’s set psychological thriller about a mother who begins to doubt the identity of her young son who has been returned to her after going missing will have a hard line to tow while it tries to convince people it’s not a remake of a horror film with the same name and is instead a prestigious Oscar bid for its uber-star Angelina Jolie.

Defiance:  12/2.  Yet another WWII epic, this one is based on a true story and staring Daniel Craig.  Directed by Edward Zwick, the film of course reeks of quality, and the trailer has been getting some good buzz (at least amongst my friends and family), but it looks nobly cliched to me.  If that new Spike Lee Joint strikes a cord, this runs the risk of being overshadowed as the later release.

Watch the trailer for Defiancehttp://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2008154393/

Oh, yeah, there’s also a new James Bond flick (Craig again) idiotically entitled Quantum of Solace (11/7), and a wacky crime caper from Oscar darlings the Coen Brothers zanily called Burn After Reading (9/12) and staring, you guessed it, Brad Pitt.

Watch the Quantum of Solace trailer:  http://www.moviefone.com/movie/quantum-of-solace/26922/trailer?trailerId=2150289

Written by David H. Schleicher